Gaslit: shining a light on narcissistic abuse

We hear from Artist Veronica Rowlands and Clinical Psychologist Dr Thomas Italiano about a new art participation project and exhibition; plus a review from Dani Olliffe.

A new art participation project has informed and produced a series of original artworks in response to the significant rise in psychological abuse and domestic abuse during the Covid-19 pandemic. Artist Veronica Rowlands worked alongside Clinical Psychologist Dr Thomas Italiano to engage adults and young people with lived experience in order to create ‘a safe space for creative response, reflection and recovery’. 

‘Gaslit: shining a light on narcissistic abuse’ combines Veronica’s research and experience with community participants from Greenwich and Newham, London, to convey the complex narratives through the artworks. Workshops with psychological abuse victims deconstructed the abuse cycle, drawing out its insidious nature and highlighting a multitude of experiences. The result is a series of 12 illustrations and three textile installations depicting the three stages of the abuse cycle – Idealise, Devalue, Discard – along with insights into what makes a narcissist, and empowering meditations on recovery. 

Rowlands said: ‘The textile installations are weighted blankets, acting as a metaphor for the depth of internal conflict for those experiencing psychological abuse – the restrictive nature of a narcissistic relationship but also the warmth and comfort that remaining within the confines of the relationship can bring.’

'…a therapuetic process, often doomed to fail…'

We heard more from clinical psychologist Dr Thomas Italiano:

‘Narcissism is a complex psychological concept. Yet, it is used as vague label we attach to “vain behaviours”, relationships or to our society, with the assumption that our listeners or readers attribute to such label the same meaning. The press and social media become an arena where people in the public eye or politicians are diagnosed with “narcissism”. An intrinsic risk around this trend is to define ambiguous behaviours as “diagnostic criteria” for pathological narcissism.

What we fail to remember is that narcissism should be considered as a spectrum of behaviours, where psychological difficulties lie at the extremities. In the mid-range of that spectrum there is a healthy narcissism, where we hold a fairly positive opinion of ourselves. It is a place where we acknowledge our needs and feelings and our right to meet and respect them. In doing so, we are able to consider others and take their needs and feelings into account. We are accepting of our flaws but not overwhelmed by those.

As we move away from the centre, we might become more self-critical or self-dismissal, finding it difficult to identify our needs or contemplating the right to have them met. We might focus more on our shortcomings or see ourselves only in service of others.

On other side of the spectrum, our narcissistic behaviours and needs might become inflated: there is more pressure, mainly unconscious, to meet our needs and to maintain, and convey, a positive self-image. When extreme, this process can lead to neglecting others’ needs and feelings altogether or to even perceiving others as only in function of one’s desires. 

As for many other psychological concepts, our narcissism is not a “fixed” trait but tends to change according to our life circumstances and the quality of our relationships. It would be naive, however, to ignore that there are relationships where narcissistic dynamics are heavily affecting the well-being of partners: there is legitimacy in the concept of “narcissistic abuse”. 

There has not been sufficient research to explore these dynamics, yet clinical and anecdotal knowledge confirms that narcissistic relationships develop along a cycle that Veronica has sensibly represented in her work.

Veronica and I did not want to simplify these dynamics and portray partners in terms of victims and perpetrators. However, we have considered important to raise awareness of a subtle, almost “hidden” abuse in certain relationships; it is an abuse that leaves the person at the receiving end emotionally bruised – to say the least – and yet they have not seen the blows coming. Too often they take the blame for the hurt.

Men and women with predominant – and at times pathological – narcissistic needs, can relate to their partners in ways that elicit in the latter self-doubt, anxiety, loneliness, loss of confidence.

Through her work, Veronica wanted to highlight that there are subtle signs that can indicate dysfunctional dynamics, warning bells that should make one question his/her own safety within that relationship. Although romantic relationships are always “work in progress” that require some self-awareness and flexibility, in some circumstances the best efforts of one partner cannot compensate for the other’s behaviours.

In a relationship based on narcissistic dynamics it is naive and ultimately self-detrimental to commit to changing or even rescuing the partner from his/her narcissistic behaviours and one’s safety and well-being should be paramount.

Veronica has pointed out that abusive and abused partners might have shared similar childhood experiences in regards to how their emotional needs were met. However, one partner’s difficult past should not become an alibi to justify abuse and turn the romantic relationship into a therapeutic process, often doomed to fail.’

- The artworks will be exhibited at Espacio Gallery (Brick Lane) from 17th August – 22nd August 2021.

Breaking the cycle

I had the pleasure of recently attending the ‘Gaslit’ exhibition, an artistic portrayal exploring the cycle of narcissistic abuse. In a series of artworks, Veronica Rowlands draws upon her personal experiences to fuel this project alongside the work of young people in the community who have also been subject to similar kinds of abuse. With assistance from clinical psychologist, Dr Thomas Italiano, the exhibition took me on a journey through the Idealise-Devalue-Discard cycle of abuse to explore the psychological impacts of this type of abuse through the lens of a victim.

The first illustration displayed in the gallery set the scene before the cycle of abuse begins, reflecting how the narcissist is ‘created’. Using only shades of black and white, this piece showed a small, degraded figure, overshadowed by two larger intimidating figures to reflect child abuse. As with many personality disorders, we understand narcissistic behaviours to present over time, typically as a result of the individual’s childhood experiences and potential trauma, and this piece reflected the upbringing of the character that later becomes the narcissistic abuser.

In Rowlands’ artistic portrayal of the cycle, she depicted the character of the narcissist as a tiger, a suggestion to how the abuser may seek out or hunt their victims in a predatory way. I personally found this portrayal really interesting because it removed the humanity of the narcissist in this story. From one perspective, I could recognise how, in an abusive cycle, a victim may see their abuser as not human in an emotional and psychological response to the traumatic experience of their abuse. However, from a psychological perspective I also understand the importance of recognising individuals with a personality disorder as human beings; an important conversation to have regarding the perception of those with complex mental health issues and personality disorders.

One of the final pieces on display saw the motif of the tiger once again, but this time the tiger’s body was built up of the faces of his previous victims and relationships. This piece was designed to reflect how even once the abuse is over, after the relationship has ended, the narcissist may still hold a part of their victim within them. The narcissist is depicted as a cumulation of their prior relationships; as if the narcissistic abuser is a tapestry of the individuals they have victimised throughout their life.

One of the most poignant parts of the exhibition for me was how the artwork created by the community was displayed; Rowlands had sewn their work onto a weighted blanket. There were three blankets in total, two draped over mannequins and one over a rocking chair. If you’ve ever tried a weighted blanket before, you will know that they are designed to be soft and comforting, but they also restrict your movement and can lead you to feel constrained and trapped- similar to how a narcissistic abuser may lead a victim to feel. Rowlands explained previously that this medium was chosen as an active metaphor for narcissistic relationships and the conflict they can bring. Comforted and supported yet trapped and restricted; a clever juxtaposition that I thought encapsulated how victims of narcissistic abuse may feel, especially during the Devalue part of the cycle where a victim may experience a lot on internal conflict between feelings of safety, and entrapment.

I think the main takeaway from this exhibition is to draw attention to this type of abuse, recognising the warning signs and the damaging psychological effects it can have on those who have experienced it. But also, this exhibition led me to think about narcissistic personality disorder and what forms of support and treatment is out there for not only victims, but the perpetrators themselves, as a preventative measure for cycles of narcissistic abuse.

- Reviewed by Dani Olliffe; BSc (Hons) Psychology and Counselling student, University of Westminster. 

T: @dani_olliffe

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